Equality Project 

Local legislators and law students discuss the state hate crimes law.

Just one day after President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Act, expanding the federal hate crimes law to include sexual orientation and gender identity, local lawmakers and University of Memphis law students discussed efforts to enhance the hate crimes law in Tennessee.

In a panel discussion at the U of M's Cecil B. Humphreys Law School last Thursday, state representative Jeanne Richardson and state senator Beverly Marrero discussed a bill they're co-sponsoring that would add "gender identity and expression" to existing state law. Attorney Murray Wells, Tennessee Equality Project board member Darlene Fike, and hate crime victim Jack Robinson also were on the panel.

Though "sexual orientation" was added to the state hate crimes law in 2001, Richardson introduced a bill last February to enhance the law with protections for transgender people.

"One of my colleagues actually said to me, 'I don't like [expletive] queers,'" Richardson told the panel. "I've been a lifelong Midtowner and downtowner and I haven't heard those kinds of comments about gay people in years. But they're alive and well."

If the bill makes it out of the House, Marrero will have to convince her colleagues in the Senate to pass it as well.

"When I was teaching my kids right from wrong years ago, I never would have imagined that we'd still be dealing with this issue in 2009," Marrero said.

Even though the federal law encompasses transgender people, Wells said a state law would offer stronger protections.

"At the state level, we're far more equipped to deal with assaults. That's the sort of thing the Shelby County district attorney's office does, not the feds," Wells said.

Locally, Wells represented Duanna Johnson, a transgender woman who was beaten by former Memphis police officer Bridges McRae in the Shelby County Jail. McRae hit Johnson on the head with handcuffs after she refused to answer to "he/she" and "faggot."

McRae cannot be charged with a hate crime under state law yet, but he will face a judge on a federal civil rights violation on December 14th.

Richardson encouraged those who support adding transgender protections to state law to contact their representatives.

"Don't make it easy for people to do the wrong thing," Richardson said. "The more people who contact them about this issue, the more likely it is to pass."

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